Shirley Charlotte Brontë Essay - Critical Essays

Brontë, Shirley Charlotte


Shirley Charlotte Brontë

The following entry presents criticism of Brontë's novel Shirley (1849). See also, The Professor Criticism.

Charlotte Brontë's second published novel, Shirley (1849), followed by two years the very popular Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. In Shirley, Brontë abandoned first-person narration by the main female character—which she had successfully employed in the earlier effort and which would reappear in Villette (1853)—in favor of an omniscient third-person narrator and not one, but two, principle characters, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. In a further departure from her earlier success, Brontë moved out of the realm of the purely personal to include elements of the social and political as well. Set in Yorkshire during the time of the Luddite unrest—a labor movement that began in 1811-1812 in an effort to protect the interests of the working class—the novel consists of two narrative strands woven together, one involving the struggles of workers against mill owners, and the other involving the romantic entanglements of the two heroines.

Biographical Information

Despite Brontë's ambitious plan to write a grand romance against an industrial backdrop, she was forced to amend her original intentions several times during the course of the novel's production. Early on, she realized the potential embarrassment she would cause her minister father, not to mention the actual danger to herself, if she were to set her new novel amid the Chartist unrest of her own time and region as she had originally planned. (The Chartists were nineteenth-century political reformers who championed the causes of the working class.) Accordingly, she retreated to an earlier period of social upheaval, the 1811-1812 Luddite disturbances, and to another place, the Heavy Woollen District of the West Riding. But progress on the novel was halted again when Charlotte's brother Branwell died in September, 1848, followed soon thereafter by sister Emily's illness and subsequent death in December. The author had scarcely resumed her work when her remaining sibling, sister Anne, became ill and died in May, 1849. Fortunately, completion of Shirley became came both escape and therapy for Charlotte, but numerous critics have speculated on the effect the family's multiple tragedies had on the finished product, most notably, on the fate of Caroline Helstone, a character loosely based on Anne.

Plot and Major Characters

Shirley begins as Robert Moore, a Yorkshire mill operator, awaits a shipment of machinery which arrives in pieces, smashed by angry workers protesting the loss of jobs to mechanization. Although he is determined to become successful in order to restore his family's honor and fortune, Robert's business difficulties continue, due in part to the continuing labor unrest, but even more so to the Napoleonic Wars and the accompanying Orders in Council which forbid British merchants from trading in American markets. Robert is unmoved by the plight of workers whose jobs are being eliminated and is so completely focused on profits that he rejects the idea of marriage to his distant kinswoman, the penniless Caroline Helstone, in favor of a proposal to the title character, a rich heiress. Shirley Keeldar, a strong independent woman who relishes her role as land owner and mill owner, ultimately rejects Robert's proposal, but not before the unhappy Caroline has suffered through what she imagines to be the courtship of her beloved Robert and her dearest friend. Caroline, poor but respectable, has no other prospects for either marriage or employment, since all professions except that of governess are closed to women. The daughter of an absent mother and an abusive father, Caroline has found refuge, such as it is, with her clergyman uncle, who ignores her. After Robert's rejection, Caroline retreats to this loveless home and begins to waste away until Shirley restores her to health by reuniting Caroline with her long-lost mother, Mrs. Pryor. Shirley, meanwhile, is in love with Robert's brother Louis, a poor tutor, but her pride prevents her from expressing those feelings. Louis, in turn, is similarly restrained from declaring his love for her by pride and fear of rejection by a woman whose means are considerably greater than his own. Events on the industrial front are brought to a head when Robert is shot by a member of the opposing faction. During his recovery, he learns what it is like to be at the mercy of another, to be treated as an object, to be totally dependent—the very status of his workers in relationship to Robert himself. This role reversal, along with the end of the war and the revocation of the Orders in Council, both of which alleviate Robert's financial difficulties, bring about enormous changes in the man. By the novel's end, Robert is reunited with Caroline and is eager to provide work for all the poor and hungry who want it. The communication problems between Shirley and Louis are finally overcome, and the headstrong Shirley submits to Louis as her "master." The novel ends with a double wedding.

Major Themes

Despite the novel's conventional happy ending featuring the marriage of both principle female characters, Shirley is nonetheless a powerful indictment of the position of women in nineteenth-century England. That their dependent status is a source of misery is evident in the initial fate of Caroline Helstone, who, like the Brontë sisters themselves, has neither dowry with which to secure a husband nor any respectable means of earning a living without one. The novel's other female characters offer no role models for Caroline, either inside or outside the married state; the married women are abused or ignored, while the spinsters are impoverished and embittered. The plight of women dependent on men for their survival is similar to the plight of workers dependent on the mill owners for theirs. Although the novel's treatment of its social and political theme is ambiguous—on the one hand sympathizing with the workers, while on the other fiercely defending the property rights of the owners—in the end, it seems to deplore inequality and exploitation for both women and workers.

Critical Reception

For those critics who praised Jane Eyre, Shirley was a disappointment. G. H. Lewes's 1850 piece in the Edinburgh Review, claiming that the second publication is "inferior in several important points," is perhaps the most famous of these early negative assessments. Lewes denounced the characters as "not true" and the plot as devoid of unity and coherence. This latter point—that the political events and the personal events in Shirley are unconnected—was then repeated by several other critics. More recent criticism, though, has refuted this charge by pointing out that the condition of the female characters and women in general is itself a political theme and that the common plight of oppressed women and oppressed workers provides the unifying connection. Another critic claims that there are actually three narrative threads in Shirley—dealing with religion, work, and romantic love—and that each represents a means of coping with life's hardships. Still others suggest that Brontë's alleged failure to successfully reconcile the public and private realms was deliberate, an acknowledgment, in fact, that life is complex and that truth is relative. In recent years, Shirley, along with Brontë's other work, has received a great deal of attention from feminist critics, some of whom praise it as an early feminist text, and others who denounce the apparent capitulation of the female characters to the constraints of marriage at novel's end. At least one critic has even suggested that the aforementioned disunity is a result of Brontë's failure to follow through on the novel's promise of providing a viable alternative to the limited possibilities for women at that time. The tragic events in Brontë's life during the time she was working on the novel have prompted several critics to suggest that the allegedly flawed ending is a direct result of those events. Speculation abounds that Caroline Helstone was never intended to recover and marry, but Charlotte, having just attended her third deathbed vigil in less than a year—this time for Anne, on whom Caroline is partly based—was unwilling or unable to see her character suffer the same fate as her sister. Many critics believe Shirley would have been a better novel if Brontë had adhered to her original plan.


G.H. Lewes (essay date 1850)

SOURCE: "Currer Bell's Shirley," in Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë, edited by Barbara Timm Gates, G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 217-23.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1850 in the Edinburgh Review, Lewes criticizes the characters in Shirley as unnatural and unrealistic, despite the author's claim that they are drawn from real life.]

Shirley is inferior to Jane Eyre in several important points. It is not quite so true; and it is not so fascinating. It does not so rivet the reader's attention, nor hurry him through all obstacles of improbability, with so keen a sympathy in its reality. It is even...

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Asa Briggs (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Private and Social Themes in Shirley" in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1958, pp. 203-19.

[In this address to the Brontë Society, Briggs explores Shirley's social themethe Luddite uprisingsan element of the novel that is often overlooked.]

I consider it a great honour to address the Brontë Society. The Transactions of the Society reveal the variety of approaches to the work of the Brontës and the continuing relevance and freshness of their creative achievement. There are still new things to say and new ways of saying them. The sense of honour, however, is mixed with some trepidation. I am not a...

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J.M.S. Tompkins (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Caroline Helstone's Eyes," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1961, pp. 18-28.

[In the following essay, Tompkins looks at possible sources for the character of Caroline from among the author's family members and friends.]

Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone's eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley, however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters. Here, for the only time, she gives herself two pretty girls as heroines, and she does not allow us to forget their charm. Her imagination lingers...

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Ivy Holgate (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Structure of Shirley," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1962, pp. 27-35.

[In the essay below, Holgate describes the changes in the novel from its planning stage to its completionchanges brought about by the tragic events in the author's life in 1848-49.]

If any one of Charlotte Brontë's novels could be described as 'ill-starred' it must surely be Shirley.

Its conception was by no means a chance-blown seed; it set out to be an ambitious work; the nucleus and growth started in a decade, and in a district, which offered lush material, rich with incident, for a romance amid industrial...

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Earl A. Knies (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Art, Death, and the Composition of Shirley," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 28, Fall, 1965, pp. 22-4.

[In the following essay, Knies examines Brontë's writing timetable in order to challenge other critics ' claims that Anne Brontë 's death brought about changes in the character and fate of Caroline.]

It is a well-known fact that the composition of Charlotte Brontë's third novel, Shirley, was interrupted by the successive deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë; and writers—notably Janet Spens and J.M.S. Tompkins—have argued plausibly that as a result Charlotte altered her original plan while she was writing the novel....

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Arnold Shapiro (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Public Themes and Private Lives: Social Criticism in Shirley," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 74-84.

[In this essay, Shapiro challenges the conventional criticism that the public and private realms in the novel are unconnected.]

From the outset, critics of Charlotte Brontë's third novel, Shirley (published in 1849), have said that the book lacks unity. It has been charged repeatedly that there is no correlation in it between the social themes—for example, the Luddite rioting of the turn of the nineteenth century—and the private ones—the two love stories at the center of the book. Thus,...

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Anne W. Passel (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Three Voices in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 15, 1969, pp. 323-26.

[In this excerpt, Passel describes the contrapuntal structure of Shirley, in which three voices explore possible solutions to life's problems through religion, work, and love respectively.]

In Shirley, Charlotte Brontë has written a novel with a highly organized three-voiced contrapuntal structure. The novel has seldom been viewed as an organic unity; more often critics consider it to be a gathering together of dissimilar threads of plot. Shortly after its publication, such an attitude was expressed by G. H. Lewes in...

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Charles Burkhart (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Shirley: The Eternal Feminine," in Charlotte Brontë: A Psychosexual Study of Her Novels, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1973, pp. 78-95.

[In the following excerpt, Burkhart claims that, despite the novel's faults, its title character succeeds as a forerunner of today's liberated women.]

Voices public and private

The habit among Victorian writers of addressing the reader directly was based on the assumptions that reader and writer shared a common background and common beliefs and that the writer's duty was rather more to instruct than to delight. When an author felt his audience becoming inattentive or alienated, he tended to raise his...

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Andrew and Judith Hook (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, edited by Andrew Hook and Judith Hook, Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 7-32.

[In this introduction to Shirley, the Hooks explore the various social themes of the novel as well as the circumstances under which it was written and the intentions of its author.]

With Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë achieved the kind of success denied to all but a handful of writers, the kind of success that soars beyond the approval of critics and reading-public alike. Jane Eyre belongs to that select company of books which have passed into a nation's literary consciousness. An extraordinary combination of...

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Terry Eagleton (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Shirley," in Myths of Power: A Marxist Studies of the Brontës, second edition, Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 45-60.

[In this excerpt, originally published in 1975, Eagleton explores the possible reasons for the novel's focus on the Luddite disturbances of 1812 rather than the Chartist unrest of Brontë's own time.]

Shirley was published in 1849, one year after the defeat of Chartism; and yet, though the novel is much preoccupied with class-conflict, it is backdated to the Luddite events of 1812. It is worth enquiring why this should be so. The West Riding of the 1840s was an intensive focus of Chartist agitation: Leeds was second only to...

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Susan Gubar (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Genesis of Hunger, According to Shirley," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 5-21.

[In the following excerpt, Gubar dismisses those critics who claim that Shirley lacks unity, and praises the novel as a revolutionary text.]

Charlotte Brontë's second published novel, Shirley, begins with three clergymen at table: complaining that the roast beef is tough and the beer flat, they nevertheless swallow enormous quantities of both, calling for "More bread!" and ordering their landlady to "Cut it, woman."1 They also consume all her vegetables, cheese and spice cake. Is it merely a scene of local...

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Helene Moglen (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Shirley: Feminism and Power," in Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived, W. W. Norton and Company, 1976, pp. 152-89.

[In the following excerpt, Moglen looks at the author's progression from Jane Eyre to Shirley as an attempt to turn from the personal to the political.]

For reasons which I will shortly sketch, Charlotte Brontë turned away from the quasi-allegorical mode of Jane Eyre and attempted to write what she conceived as a social and political novel. She would, of course, not abandon the psychological conundrums she had explored in that violent and radical new myth of heterosexual relationship, but she would now...

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Deirdre Lashgari (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "What Some Women Can't Swallow: Hunger as Protest in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley," in Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment, edited by Lilian R. Furst and Peter W. Graham, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 141-52.

[In this excerpt, Lashgari discusses images of food, starvation, and eating disorders in Shirley.]

Does virtue lie in abnegation of self? I do not believe it. (10:190)

You expected bread, and you have got a stone. (6:105)


Individual eating disorders in Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley (1849)...

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Further Reading

Ankenbrandt, Katherine Ware. "Charlotte Brontë's Shirley and John Leyden's 'The Cout of Keeldar'." Victorian Newsletter No. 34 (Fall 1968): 33-34.

Traces the possible source of the surname Keeldar in Shirley.

Argyle, Gisela. "Gender and Generic Mixing in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, No. 4 (Autumn 1995): 741-56.

Explores the use of the third-person narrator in Shirley as a departure from Brontë's use of protagonist-narrators in Jane Eyre and Villette.

Bailin, Miriam. '"Varieties of...

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